Trump’s Strange Love for Vladimir Putin Has Become a National Security Nightmare
In his first press conference as president, Donald Trump made a revealing comment about his relationship with Russia, which the U.S. intelligence community had accused of interfering in the 2016 election and which has been a source of so many of his headaches since. “It’s possible I won’t be able to get along with Putin,” he lamented, blaming the media’s “fake reporting” for imperiling his campaign promise to improve relations between the two countries, and between himself and Putin, in particular. Putin, he imagined, “he’s sitting behind his desk saying, you know, I see what’s going on in the United States, they follow it closely. It’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story. O.K.? And that’s a shame.”
Incredibly, the president’s fantasy of a warmer relationship with Putin remains mostly undimmed, 10 months later, even as Robert Mueller’s Russia probe ensnares former staff, advisers, and possibly his own son-in-law. When the two met in Asia last month, on the sidelines of a diplomatic summit, Trump was won over anew when Putin allegedly insisted that he had been maligned by U.S. intelligence. “He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
While Trump was less credulous the following day, the president’s curious affinity for Russia remains a cause for alarm within the White House, according to a thorough, deeply sourced report from The Washington Post:
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.
The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president—and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality—have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.
At the heart of the issue, according to more than 50 current and former U.S. officials who spoke to the Post, is Trump’s fear that addressing the Russia issue will delegitimize his election victory. “The president obviously feels . . . that the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladimir Putin is pretty insulting,” a senior administration official told the Post. One senior G.O.P. strategist, who has discussed the matter with Trump associates, explained, “If you say ‘Russian interference,’ to him it’s all about him . . . He judges everything as about him.”
That reluctance reportedly extends to Trump’s daily intelligence briefings: “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference—that takes the PDB off the rails,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. Another official described a policy of “don’t walk that last 5½ feet” on sensitive Russia-related matters, which effectively means “avoid bringing something to the Oval Office that can be tackled by subordinates.” (Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Post that the intelligence community “always provides objective intelligence—including on Russia—to the president and his staff.”)
At times, the president’s blind spot has bled into policy debates. According to the Post, a plan backed by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to arm Ukrainian forces has sat, inert, for months. “Every conversation I’ve had with people on this subject has been logical,” a senior U.S. official said. “But there’s no logical conclusion to the process, and that tells me the bottleneck is in the White House.” When Congress passed a bill requiring Trump to secure congressional approval if he seeks to curtail Obama-era sanctions against Moscow, the president was reportedly “apoplectic;” White House advisers had to strong-arm him into signing the bill. “Hey, here are the votes,” aides told the president, according to a second Trump adviser who spoke with the Post. “If you veto it, they’ll override you and then you’re f—ed and you look like you’re weak.”
Russia responded to the sanctions bill quickly, ordering the U.S. to drastically cut its diplomatic staff in Russia. Only when the U.S. was toying with returning two suspected Russian spy compounds was the former real-estate mogul’s curiosity piqued. “I told Rex we’re not giving the real estate back to the Russians,” Trump reportedly said, adding later, “Should we sell this off and keep the money?” (A State Department spokesperson disputed this account.)
But the threat of future Russian election meddling remains, and it is an open question whether the U.S. is prepared to combat it. White House officials told the Post that the National Security Council has discussed U.S. vulnerabilities, but Trump has never convened a Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue. (On the contrary, when Trump and Putin first met, during the G20 Summit, Trump walked away convinced that the U.S. and Russia should partner on an “Cyber Security unit” to prevent election hacking, a suggestion that stunned members of his own party.) One former high-ranking administration official said that the N.S.C. has avoided raising these issues with the president out of fear that Trump would be enraged. One result, as the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe reported, is that the Trump administration had declined to mobilize security forces against the Kremlin: “American counterintelligence forces sit idle, waiting for a directive to do battle with the Russians that insiders suspect will never come.”
Trump does have one ally in his refusal to embrace the findings of the U.S. intelligence community: Putin, who has repeatedly denied that Russia interfered in the election that has once again come to the president’s defense. On Thursday, the Russian president said that continued focus on collusion “inflicted damage to the domestic political situation” in the United States and demonstrated a “lack of respect for voters” who backed Trump in 2016. The appeal was likely well-received by at least one supporter in the White House.
via Vanity Fair http://bit.ly/2xvuIXg
December 14, 2017 at 10:15AM